The Matryoshka is Empty: Why Russia Doesn’t Really Matter
“Paper Tiger (noun): one that is outwardly powerful or dangerous but inwardly weak or ineffectual”
Russia’s alleged threat to American interests is exaggerated, taken well out of context by those that would benefit from sustained American defense spending, and only applicable as it relates to NATO’s expansion in the Baltic States. The only real Russian threat to American interests is if it should collapse.
If you could not find Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Donets Basin, Transnistria or Crimea on a map until Russia intervened, then you’ve understood the relevance a Russian challenge represents. Judging by the absence of any meaningful international response to Russia’s incursions, you would also be in good company. The regions in which Russia chooses to intervene militarily simply do not matter to America, or the world. This is not because Russia does not have interests in more relevant areas; it is because Russia simply cannot intervene anywhere else.
Russia has no reach. Statistically Russia possesses the strongest military that can influence Europe, but strength is relative. Russia is strong because Europe is weak. Europe has abused America’s security spending for decades and has ended up with papier-mâché militaries that require American leadership and supervision to work together. European security cooperation is often limited to cost sharing measures rather than substantial increases to defense capabilities. Viewed simplistically against such an adversary, Russia’s relative military advantage is formidable, but reversible should Europe get serious about its own defense.
Russia is at a stalemate against an arguably inferior military in the Ukraine, and is logistically constrained to operations in the Donets Basin, close to its border and overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Russians. The Donets Basin, and Russia’s other adventures in the Crimea, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have turned those areas into economic disaster zones that consume Russian resources and provide little in return. This hardly represents the reach or strategic acumen of an American near-peer competitor.
However, in the context of vital interests, our Article V commitments to the Baltic 3 (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) represent the only existential, albeit highly unlikely, intersection of competing Russian-American interests. To America’s and Europe’s detriment, the Baltic 3 (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) became full-fledged members of NATO in 2004. In return for their numerically insignificant contributions, they represent NATO’s most vulnerable, most feasible targets for Russian military aggression.
As recent models demonstrate, the Baltic three would be no match for a concerted Russian assault. Assuming the model accounted for the mobilization of the tens of thousands of reservists to compliment the combined 30,000 active Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian servicemen and women, predictions are that Russia could conquer the region in the course of a long weekend. Simulations also rightly highlighted the absence of armored NATO forces to counter Russia’s strength in that area. Further problems for NATO emerge due to the sophistication of Russian air defense capabilities. Lastly, and most alarmingly, the study reminded analysts of the post-USSR change in Russian nuclear doctrine, now referred to as ‘de-escalation’, in which tactical nuclear weapons may be used to respond to a successful NATO ground assault.
However, the model assumes a hypothetical environment that places the possibility of such an event into the realm of the absurd. Russia’s overwhelming domestic social and economic challenges suggest that Russia is far more likely to collapse than it is to take over three nations with an economic output and population dwarfed by New Jersey[i]. Furthermore, for all its bluster, the least beneficial circumstance for Russia would be a war with the world. Western exclusion from the group of eight (now seven), western sanctions and sagging fuel prices have been sufficiently crippling.
Further indicators that Russia is relatively unconcerned by security challenges from the Baltic, is that it has made a clear prioritization of resources to its southern military district. It is evidently more concerned over jihadist terrorism in the Caucuses and support for breakaway regions such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Crimea, than it is in diminishing U.S. influence in the Baltics.
Some analysts point to Russia’s operations in Syria as an example of expanded capabilities. While true, it is still too early to judge how strategically relevant those capabilities are. Russia’s ability to turn aircraft to execute sorties and launch somewhat precise cruise missile strikes certainly bear watching and assessing, however, these operations are relatively simple. They exist in a permissive environment absent an anti-aircraft threat, and sidestep the complexity of combined arms land based maneuver and their corresponding sustainment requirements. Sustaining operations in Syria also required extraordinary logistical measures, particularly in shipping. Operating airfields as a guest of a host nation is an apples to oranges comparison to opening a theater and conducting prolonged ground combat in hostile territory.
The beneficiaries of an aggressive American foreign policy towards Russia are manipulating the relevance of the threat it poses. Unsurprisingly, they consist of our allies and our own parochial strategic thinkers. Europe (Germany in particular) is still smarting from the departure of almost a quarter million Americans and their families since 1990. Russia’s existence and their inability to address military problems in their own back yards (think Bosnia, Kosovo and the Ukraine) are unpleasant reminders that eventually they may have to spend some of their own money on their militaries. Nations like Poland and the Czech Republic bear deep reciprocating, historical scars of occupation, and expended substantial diplomatic capital to host the American missile defense system that President Obama scrapped. Both would appreciate the domestic assurance, and of course financial boon, of hosting thousands of well-subsidized Americans and their families.
Professional American Analysts and Strategists include clans of former Euro-warriors for whom Russia will always be the adversary, and whose hard work helped construct the international coalitions that proved vital to our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. This bloc makes legitimate arguments about the trust building and interoperability that can only forward stationed forces can achieve. This argument assumes Europe will have the stomach and means to join us in another non-article V adventure like Iraq or Afghanistan. Europe’s armies are shrinking in both size and capability, as is the political will to support such a campaign.
Russia’s military deficiencies are unlikely to improve. Assuming the improbable conditions under which Russia’s flagging economy and ageing population will support planned military reforms, none of Russia’s initiatives really change the situation. Rather than address the capability gap between its ground combat units and their sustaining organizations, Russia chose to prioritize improvements such as ICBM delivery, ballistic missile submarines, and sea-based air defense. In effect, it has chosen to ignore the problems that limit its strategic reach in favor of systems that would deter American and Chinese challenges and intimidate European populations.
An understanding of Russia’s broad ambitions is not hard to assess. Russia is hardly an inscrutable actor playing its cards close to the chest. It is a loud and boisterous bully whose activities are largely constrained to its home turf, and whose approach to its neighbors generates derision and scorn as often as it does awe. As described by Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment, Russia is a “security manager in a zone of privileged interest”.
Russia still represents a strategic challenge. Through their operations in The Ukraine and Syria, the Russians will inevitably gain capacity in asymmetric warfare, and air-ground operations. They already possess sophisticated cyber-warfare capabilities. Conversely, absent a concerted Russian effort to enhance long-range sustainment of ground forces, and a dramatic improvement in Russia’s population growth and economy, Russia will remain an interesting but marginally relevant challenge to American interests.
Russia has no interest in investing itself in a large war, when proxy wars will do. It can challenge American interests only at great cost to itself and only under exceptional circumstances. Viewed in context of its capabilities, constraints and interests, Russia does not constitute a significant enough threat to justify the reapportionment of America’s increasingly limited military force structure.
[i] The combined GDP of the Baltic 3 is $135 Billion and includes a population of 6.3 million. The combined 3 armed forces (less reserves, which all 3 rely upon) is approximately 30k full time service members. Estonia does possess a highly advanced cyber warfare center which provides an exceptional niche capability to the Alliance.